Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Updike has been quoted as saying that Couples is about sex as an emergent religion, and indeed the novel does chronicle the practices and consequences of the near worship of sex in contemporary American culture. Yet the book also contains a criticism as well as a celebration of the new sexual morality which has replaced moribund religious beliefs that no longer seem relevant. The substitution of a natural experience, sex, for a supernatural one, religion, also coincides with prevalent modern attitudes about the diminishing role of the Church in the world. Piet is a victim of his need for a belief in something beyond the world and for physical comfort against the fears that he harbors about death and corporal nothingness. His prayers, which provide little solace, are gradually replaced by the worship, literally, of the body and its temporality. He finally comes to abandon his need for the spirit and accepts his mortality by immersing himself in his own finititude, accepting the transitoriness of the joys of the flowers and of the flesh. His abandonment of Angela and of his spiritual need or search takes its toll on Piet, and his acceptance of Foxy is a fall, not simply a realignment of relationships or a change of wives. When he surrenders himself to Foxy, he also commits a kind of spiritual suicide, partly because Foxy’s physical need for him is suffocating in a way that Angela’s lack of need was not, and also because such a consuming desire overwhelms his religious impulses while smothering his spirit. It is instructive that Piet embraces his fall with such fervor. Updike has said that his character at the end of the novel both becomes a satisfied person and dies at the same time. Couples is not a fairy tale for all of its mythical qualities; the tale is not a simple one in which the boy gets the girl in the end. Indeed, Foxy and Piet do marry, but they are expelled from whatever kind of postpill Eden that Tarbox had become. As he was expelled from his parents’ greenhouse in his childhood, Piet is again thrown out into the world by death, this time his own spiritual death, leaving the reader to wonder about the permanence of this new relationship. In the end, Couples promises very little for the future.